There’s a saying said throughout the Nashville Predators franchise: “The road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee.”
Geographically, the phrase doesn’t hold a lot of significance. But ideologically, it’s been quite meaningful for nearly two decades to dozens of players, and now another coach has joined their ranks. Promoted this past week to be the Predators goaltending coach, Ben Vanderklok has risen from the post he’s spent with the American Hockey League’s Milwaukee Admirals (for the last five seasons) to hockey’s ultimate level.
Vanderklok, like so many Predators players before him, has paid his time developing in Milwaukee and now he’s earned the call to Nashville. He’s walked the “road.”
“It means a lot because I know what that means for the players up there. It’s something we live by as an organization, so that slogan–for lack of a better term–is especially meaningful when you can hear it said about yourself,” Vanderklok said. “I think that everything is earned in this game–nothing’s given–so I’ve been striving for this role for awhile. And I’m just blessed that I’ve gotten the opportunity. This organization has been so good to me for five years, so I’m honored to be able to take on a larger role in this new job.”
“This decision draws from what we say about our young players: ‘The road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee.’ That was true for Ben, and he’s shown he’s ready for this,” Nashville General Manager David Poile said on Thursday. “Just like a prospect, he’s put in the time, work and shown he’s ready for the next level. Now he’s ready for the big job.”
Once a player in the Ontario Hockey League for a pair of seasons–then a coach in the OHL for several more–Vanderklok has steadily taken the next step until finally reaching the National Hockey League level. But even more important than that experience, may have been his time spent studying under former Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn for five seasons.
“Mitch has had a huge impact. What I really appreciate about Mitch is that he shared everything with me. If it was something he did with Pekka video-wise, I got to see it. Right down to the props that he uses,” Vanderklok explained. “For example, I know he did a lot of work with Hutton and the medicine ball, for explosiveness and power help this past season. He really shared everything with me, and I’ve been a sponge through the whole process. Coming in, I know I’ve got a lot of my own ideas and thoughts, but there’s definitely going to be a huge amount of stuff that I’ve taken from Mitch. I can’t wait to try out some of my ideas too though.”
With Vanderklok’s promotion comes pressure not faced by others holding the same position with different clubs. For under Korn’s tutelage, Nashville has become something of a high-octane factory for quality NHL goaltenders. Regularly producing top-ranked netminders such as Pekka Rinne or Tomas Vokoun, the Predators traditionally feature their last line of defense as one of their most relied on assets, and Vanderklok is tasked with making sure there isn’t a drop off.
Vanderklok says it will be important to find a balance of continuing past drills that were successful with starting goaltender Rinne and backup Carter Hutton, while also fine-tuning weak spots.
“It’s so early now to try and list off all the things that I would change. I still need to watch a lot more video before I make that final list. I mean Pekka has been successful for awhile, we know that. And Carter had a heck of a year last year, winning 20 games,” said Vanderklok. “I think I need to go in there and build a relationship with those guys and study where their game is at right now. So moving forward there will be a lot of areas that we focus on with them. I may not know everything I should or want to change right now, but there are some things for instance in Pekka’s game that I’d like to tighten up. Both guys are really solid, and with Pekka coming off the MVP at the World Championships, I think that shows he’s back to what he can be. They’re both at a very good point, and I’m excited to build off where they already are.”
Like so many AHL players first finding their way in the NHL, however, the Predators goaltending coach must find the proper mix of modeling his style after veterans and implementing his own elements. Taking over for Korn, who had been with the franchise since its inception, is no easy task, but Vanderklok isn’t a wide-eyed rookie. He’s done his time at many of hockey’s lower levels. Plus, he’s got the confidence to form his own identity as well.
“You ask about the props though, I’ve got pucks of all kinds of colors. I’ve got screen boards and a lot of drills I’m ready to use with them. So some of the stuff is from Mitch, but I’ve got ideas I’ve been wanting to try out too,” said Vanderklok with a smile. “So yeah, I feel like I took everything from Mitch that I could, and I’m looking forward to the future now.”